Professional Carwashing & Detailing

To prep or not to prep

October 11, 2010

In a straw poll recently conducted by Professional Car Care Online™, 80 percent of the respondents said that express exterior carwashes should not engage in the practice of manually preparing vehicles prior to cleaning them in the wash-bay.

Although this is a resounding rejection of the practice of prepping, I don’t believe that anyone should be surprised with this outcome.

After all, we are talking about a business model that is based on the premise of being a virtually “people-less” carwash.

The environment & the express exterior
Supposedly, there are a number of express exterior carwash operators who are capable of washing hundreds of thousands of vehicles a year without manual preparation, guide-on or hand finishing.

Perhaps these operators do not have to deal with things like love bugs, ice, red clay or three weeks worth of baked-on tree pollen.

However, there are many areas in the country that have to deal with these environmental conditions on a daily or seasonal basis that requires operators to spend extra time, money and effort to get the job done right the first time.

In addition, there are vehicles, like SUVs, that often challenge the best chemical regimes and equipment packages. In these cases, it is often impossible to do it right the first time without some prepping or re-washing.

Re-washing vs. prepping
Re-washing may seem like a logical alternative for an operator as opposed to manually prepping vehicles, but it actually creates an inconvenience for the customer.

In today’s marketplace, convenience is one of the most influential factors affecting the consumer’s purchasing decision. Making customers wait while their vehicle is being re-washed once or twice is not going to help build customer confidence.

Prepping has gotten a bad rap over the years because many times it was done the wrong way for the wrong reasons.

As shown in the photo, there are carwash operators who still continue to use pole brushes and buckets of dirty water to clean vehicles before they send it through the wash-bay.

This type of prepping wastes valuable resources, doesn’t seem professional, slows down production and can lead to unnecessary paint damage.

Quality control
Preparing a vehicle prior to cleaning it in the wash-bay is an important part of the quality control (QC) process at most professional carwashes.

At a full-service or exterior-only carwash, the QC function is the responsibility of the customer service advisor (CSA), conveyor attendant, manager and, ultimately, the owner.

QC at the entrance or starting-line of the carwash involves inspecting vehicles for damage, loose mirrors, open windows, bagging the rear windshield wipers, etc.

The quality of the QC function can have a profound effect on wash quality, customer satisfaction and owner’s liability.

At a “hands-off” express exterior carwash, the CSA and, to some extent, the QC process have been replaced by machines like gated auto-cashiers.

Unfortunately, these machines do not possess the human capacity to evaluate the condition of a vehicle, nor do they have the ability to do anything about it.

Talk to the hand
I have visited several of these “hands-off” carwashes and found the quality to be reasonably good without any manual prepping.

However, I did find an assortment of debris in the wash-bays including antenna masts, pieces of taillight lenses and miscellaneous pieces of plastic.

These customers may have been happy with the quality of their $3 wash, but how many of them will return to the carwash when they realize the wash may have caused the damage?

Eliminating unnecessary labor is one of the keys to achieving operational efficiency at a professional carwash.

But new investors in express exterior washes need to realize that the QC function at a professional carwash demands more attention than just producing a reasonably clean and dry vehicle.

Otherwise, the QC process and customer satisfaction will end up taking a backseat to low price.

Bob is president of RJR Enterprises – Carwash Consultants ( Bob is a member of PC&D’s Honorary Advisory Board and the International Carwash Association. Bob can be contacted at